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The Extent of the Biblical Flood

The extent of the biblical flood in Gen 6–9 is a matter of debate. The description of “flood waters over the earth to destroy all flesh” suggests a worldwide flood that destroys all living things on earth (Gen 6:17). The biblical account declares the water covered the mountains and rose 15 cubits higher than the mountaintops (Gen 7:19–20).

The debate is over how these statements should be understood. Do they reflect an ancient Near Eastern worldview, or do they point to an actual global event? Interpretations that emphasize the ancient nonscientific perspective of the text focus on the literary parallels between the biblical flood narrative and other ancient Near Eastern flood accounts. Advocates of this interpretation also tend to reject attempts to harmonize the flood story with scientific data because harmonization requires drawing on data and concepts foreign to the ancient writer.

The Flood and Ancient Near Eastern Cosmology

In the ancient Near East, the world was viewed as a single land mass surrounded by mountains. Those mountains held up the heavens and anchored the land mass in the underworld (compare Job 9:6; Psa 75:3; 2 Sam 22:8); the land was also completely surrounded by water. This ancient conception of the world seems to be reflected in many ot passages, including Gen 1:6–8; Prov 8:27–29; 1 Sam 2:8; 2 Sam 22:8; and Psa 104:5. If the flood is understood in this ancient cosmological framework, then any apparent references to a global flood could reflect the limited perspective of the ancient writer—as far as he was concerned, the flood covered the entire known world.

The Interpretative Options

The debate over the extent of the biblical flood is focused around two major perspectives: the traditional view of a universal global flood and the alternative view of a limited flood. The limited flood view can be further broken down into three subcategories: a flood of the entire known world, a regional flood, and a local flood.

The traditional interpretation takes the biblical details (especially from Gen 7–8) to indicate a global catastrophe. Alternatively, a massive flood on a lesser scale (i.e., the world known to the ancient author) may explain both the biblical statements and the inconclusive evidence for a global flood. The idea of a regional flood usually centers on the possibility of a large-scale flood in the Tigris and Euphrates valley, the Black Sea region, or the Mediterranean basin. The Black Sea region flood theory is enhanced by evidence of large-scale flooding in the region that lines up with the biblical account. The local flood interpretation sees the flood as a rather small-scale disaster, destroying several riverside towns but having no long-term impact on the archaeology or geology of the area.

Arguments for a Global Flood

The strongest argument for a universal, global flood event comes from the Bible itself. A straightforward reading of Gen 7:19–22 indicates the writer envisioned a flood on a massive scale—covering “all the high mountains which were under the entire heaven” (Gen 7:19). Supporters of the global flood view believe these statements should be taken at face value and then explain how such a flood might have been physically possible. In addition to the biblical account, proponents of this view point to the accounts of flood stories among unrelated peoples as evidence of some major flood event in ancient times. Opponents counter that we have no way of knowing whether these flood stories all refer to the same flood, or if these accounts simply refer to a regional flood.

The physical evidence for a global flood is limited and inconclusive. Supporters of the global view appeal to evidence of flood deposits around the world and evidence from the fossil record of animals that apparently died suddenly and violently from drowning or choking. However, the evidence may not point to a single cataclysmic event; rather, the fossils and preserved animal remains may be isolated instances spread over thousands of years.

Arguments for a Limited Flood

The arguments for a limited flood begin with the logistical difficulties presented by a literal global flood. Essentially, these are arguments against a global flood, leaving a flood on a smaller scale as the only remaining viable option. The logistical problems with a global flood are twofold: the problem of water and the problem of the animals.

The problem of water is raised by the calculation of how much water would be necessary to cover the highest mountains on earth. Eight times the amount of water currently existing on earth would be required to cover Mount Everest (29,028 feet). Roughly three times the amount of water currently on earth would be needed to cover Mount Ararat in northern Mesopotamia. Sea level would need to rise by 17,000 feet, requiring approximately 630 million cubic miles of water, just to cover Ararat. There is no known source for that much water. Furthermore, there is no natural mechanism capable of removing that much additional water from the earth, much less causing it to dry up in a few months’ time as the Bible recounts.

The logistical problem with the animals comes from attempts to determine how thousands of species could survive for a year on a three-story ark in the confined space of roughly three acres. Where would enough food and fresh water be stored? Estimates range from 13,000–21,000 species of animals and birds that would have been preserved. That multiplies to 26,000–42,000 animals with the biblical requirement that the animals be represented at minimum in a male and female pair. The eight people on the ark would have had to provide for the needs of all of these animals—a seemingly impossible task even if they were able to store enough food and water. Another objection to the idea of a global flood comes from the unusual and unique distribution of animals throughout the world, especially the unique species found in Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea.

All of these objections could be dismissed by an appeal that the flood was a massive supernatural miracle, so the logistical problems of water and animals would not have been problems—God provided the extra water, God made the water go away, God provided for the animals. However, the question is not whether God could have enacted such a miracle, but whether He actually used supernatural means to make it happen. God’s agency in the event is clear (compare Gen 6:4–8), but even the supporters of the global flood idea seek out naturalistic explanations for how it could have happened because the text itself does not present the flood as a supernatural phenomenon.

Possible Explanations for the Flood

Despite these logistical difficulties, many interpreters take the story at face value and try to demonstrate how a global flood of the scope described in Gen 6–9 could have occurred. Many theories have been devised to explain the logistical difficulties associated with the water and the animals—which is a regular objection by opponents to the global flood theory. One popular explanation for the flood’s source of water is the canopy theory: the explanation that the earth used to be surrounded by a canopy of water vapor above the atmosphere. This theory takes literally the biblical statement that “the windows of heaven were opened” to release the water that rained on earth (Gen 7:11). The problem with this theory is that there is no scientific evidence for it. It also doesn’t solve the problem of how the excess water was removed from the earth in such a short time. However, a miracle can easily be cited for this. Other theories provide a water source for the flood by postulating an ice-lens or ice-moon that broke up and fell into the atmosphere, or a massive movement of the earth’s crust with the ocean floor rising and the land sinking. Neither option can be substantiated by scientific evidence.

Evidence of a Flood

Evidence for ancient flooding on a limited but still catastrophic scale is available. For example, geologic data shows the Mediterranean was not always a sea. According to geologists, the water was dammed at Gibraltar until some 5.5 million years ago. The sudden collapse of the natural dam resulted in the filling of the Mediterranean basin over a period of about nine months. A more recent option for the biblical flood is the flooding of the Black Sea region around 5500 bc, when some 60,000 square miles were flooded over a year’s time, and the water level of the Black Sea rose 500 feet after a sudden rise of water level in the Mediterranean.

The Knowledgebase of the Biblical Writer

Proponents of a limited flood interpretation explain the universal account of Gen 7:19–22 as limited by the perspective of the writer. The flood may have appeared universal in the sense that the entire known world was affected. Or the flood was universal in the sense that all people died but Noah and his family. It is also possible that a local or regional phenomenon was described in hyperbolic terms, making it appear to be a universal phenomenon.

Interpreters who hold these types of views also emphasize how the ot regularly uses the terms “all” or “whole” without implying total global participation. For example, Deuteronomy 2:25 is not normally understood to mean that God put all the nations of the globe in fear of Israel. Similarly, the statement that “all the earth” came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph cannot indicate all the people of the globe at the time (Gen 41:57).

The Debate Continues

For supporters of the global flood argument, the burden of proof is on those who would reject the plain sense of Scripture. Interpreters favoring a limited flood, however, argue that the plain sense of Scripture must be considered in light of its cultural context. Both sides in this debate—supporters of a global flood and supporters of a limited flood—are represented by well-meaning Christian interpreters doing their best to offer a faithful and accurate understanding of the biblical text.

Douglas Mangum

Further Reading

Overflowed with Water GR:SDCBB

Flood DOT: P

Is a Universal Flood Consistent with Geologic Evidence NIEBD

Flood, Genesis ZEB D—G

Science and the Flood SB

Noah’s Ark and the Flood SOTI


About Faithlife Study Bible

Faithlife Study Bible (FSB) is your guide to the ancient world of the Old and New Testaments, with study notes and articles that draw from a wide range of academic research. FSB helps you learn how to think about interpretation methods and issues so that you can gain a deeper understanding of the text.


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